LONDON, United Kingdom — There's an overused adage that says a picture is worth a thousand words, but in the age of Instagram the value of imagery is a lot higher. Once a niche app, Instagram is now a fully-fledged social network with 75 million people snapping and liking per day and nearly 300 million monthly active users. Chanel (@ChanelOfficial) has 2.4 million followers. That's more than double than the monthly circulation of the British editions of Elle, Grazia, Vogue, Harpers Bazaar and InStyle combined. When Cara Delevingne posts an image to her account it reaches 9.1 million people. Indeed, Instagram is now a powerful player in fashion publishing. Yet brands still prioritise — and pay for — print advertising and spend time and PR budget wooing fashion journalists for editorial credits. But could that be changing?
On the 6th of January, Céline released an image from their Spring/Summer 2015 campaign featuring Joan Didion, which seemed to really “break the internet,” as the expression goes. Didion was everywhere; in "think pieces", on Twitter, on Facebook, on Tumblr. Granted I work in fashion, but my own feed was 70 percent full of that one ad for about three to four hours after the image broke. I counted 13 posts of it in a row of — some customised with a warm Valencia filter, giving Joan a tan. Numerous outlets, including i-D and The Cut, picked up that this ad was made for the Internet rather than print, though, of course, Didion will look great on glossy paper. They wrote of Didion’s “Tumblr currency,” a reference to the share-friendly, Like-able content that can be created around the cult of Didion, from vintage photographs to memorable, inspirational quotes. Indeed, so Internet-perfect was the ad, that it almost looked as if it could have been a fake, made by some overzealous Phoebe Philo enthusiast, much like the numerous joke ads that litter Instagram and Tumblr; see the scarily realistic Lindsey Lohan for Saint Laurent shots or that now ubiquitous (yet still oddly heart-warming) Grumpy Cat for Prada image. Indeed, these fake ads can get just as much traction as the real thing. Lohan for Saint Laurent was covered not only on gossip sites but by legitimate fashion media and even garnered a tweet from LiLo herself. Why shoot a campaign when you can get a teen fashion student with access to Photoshop to make one for you?
Around the same time as Didion dropped, Calvin Klein unveiled new underwear advertising featuring Justin Bieber. He has 21.9 million followers on Instagram and duly posted seven of the images, plus one video, to his account. All received well over a million likes. Such was the furore that “Saturday Night Live” parodied the ad. You don’t get that by booking David Gandy or whoever else is currently at the top of Models.com.
It may seem obvious that brands have always tried to tap into the zeitgeist and recruit figures with a large reach. After all, that’s why celebrities are paid to hawk perfumes, bags and lipsticks. Influence sells. It's part of the reason Kate Moss is one the world’s most successful models. She’s a style icon on a mass level, aspirational yet accessible. But what does it mean for fashion advertising when the star of your campaign has more direct reach than any of the places you’re paying to put your ad? That's a very new kind of influence. It changes who wields power.
Both Calvin Klein and (despite her well-documented aversion to the Web) Phoebe Philo with her Céline ad force you to question whether fashion ads are now being made almost entirely for the Web rather than for print. Is the purpose of a campaign now likes and shares rather than a lasting beautiful, printed image by a top photographer and an association with a respected title? It would certainly seem so. That’s no doubt why Estée Lauder tapped Kendall Jenner (17.9 million followers) as their face back in November of 2014 and got her to announce the news on her Instagram (one million likes for that post alone). Sure, those ads will appear in print, but the real campaign was the initial announcement.
Fashion’s conservatives will continue to argue that the prestige of being associated with magazines still counts. They’ll say glossies are barometers of taste, elevated aspirational voices that one should trust even more now that there’s so much noise online. But like it or not, fashion has become accessible. It’s mass — in many ways an extension of the entertainment industry. There are new tastemakers now; bloggers, social media stars and ‘it’ models. Really, when today’s teenagers spend 7.5 hours a day consuming digital media on their phones and laptops, what’s more likely to get them to fork out for a piece of clothing, a one page ad in a style magazine or a post from an icon they trust and ‘stalk’ every day?
Camilla Johnson-Hill, executive producer at The Production Club, whose clients include Balenciaga, Tom Ford, Hugo Boss, H&M, Burberry, Dior and Jil Sander says “Instagram is definitely changing the way campaigns are viewed. On every shoot there are now multiple platforms to think about and many other images (behind the scenes shots and selfies) are created exclusively for it. Posting dates and so on are very much part of crew and models' contracts.”
With new innovations popping up every day to make Instagram shoppable (see apps like LikeToKnow) you could argue that placing product on a printed page, a space where consumers cannot immediately buy it, is out-dated. For digital expert Rosanna Falconer, communications director of Matthew Williamson, “the web has so much more possibility [than print]: pre-order the look now, comment on the designer's post and start a conversation with him; share your thoughts in a forum with fellow fashion geeks… Both conversation and commerce are easily accessible in Web advertising content.”
Part of the success of the Didion campaign came from how it seemed to follow a checklist for great online content. It was witty enough to merit shares but polished enough to still seem authentic. It’s a recipe of which lots of brands are aware. See Lanvin’s Autumn/Winter 2011 campaign video, which was released at a time when fashion creatives began receiving briefs from brands demanding ‘viral’ content (the notion that one can’t control whether something goes viral seemed to escape them). ‘Content’ is really the key word here. It’s not about ‘creative’ content in the same sense as say those adored old Versace catalogues, released to a precious few and now cherished as reference material by collectors, but pure Web fodder. What else can you expect in the age of Buzzfeed, listicles and the mighty hits of the Mail Online?
It’s the younger designers — those who grew up with the Internet and started their careers in a post-Google, post-Tumblr world— who get it best. J.W. Anderson’s debut campaign for Loewe, aptly debuted on his Instagram, really shows the way the web is affecting creative thinking. It featured an archive 1997 Italian Vogue editorial by Steven Miesel, reprinted and branded with Loewe. The irrepressible nostalgia that drives much of Instagram and Tumblr — see all those artfully cropped Corinne Day images of Kate Moss, grainy Lolita stills and ‘ironic’ reposts of early 1990s icons like Britney, Paris and Gwen — has created a culture where the remarketing of an old image seems natural, aspirational even. Without Instagram would the Loewe advertisement have worked?
If the creative director of a major luxury house — and one of the most hyped designers around — is taking leads from Instagram culture when putting together his campaign then it seems likely others will follow suit. It’s obvious that it’s no longer enough to impress readers in the pages of a magazine; ads have to work online too. But the Web requires punch, gimmicks, pop. So will today’s campaigns have lasting impact? Will they be reproduced and regrammed in the way Anderson reprinted Meisel’s editorial, seduced by the timeless nonchalance of that beach scene? Perhaps not. But today’s fashion culture is different. We demand a certain speed, a certain kind of immediacy that also comes with things feeling a little more throwaway. If the campaigns of today not only reflect contemporary style but also contemporary communications forms, then they properly reflect the times we live in — and isn’t that what fashion is all about anyway?
Lou Stoppard is editor of SHOWstudio.
The views expressed in Op-Ed pieces are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Business of Fashion.
How to submit an Op-Ed: The Business of Fashion accepts opinion articles on a wide range of topics. Submissions must be exclusive to The Business of Fashion and suggested length is 700-800 words, though submissions of any length will be considered. Please send submissions to contributors@